Americans never quit.” – General Douglas MacArthur

You know it, you’ve seen it, you’ve felt it—the American spirit. As I write this, I’m envisioning a truck commercial, set late in the afternoon with golden sunlight shining on a heavy-duty pickup as it splashes through the mud. John Mellencamp is singing. Or maybe it’s a beer ad with young, good-looking people flirting, dancing with sparklers, celebrating life. These are poor representations, but they do sort of get it right. Because you don’t see happy people walking the streets of North Korea. Can you picture the pickup trucks they drive in Europe? No, this isn’t about ripping other countries or bragging because we have better vehicles and alcohol. It’s about that underlying essence that those commercials draw on. It’s about the indomitable American spirit.

It’s kind of hard to define, so maybe it’s easier if we look at examples. They’re everywhere, throughout our history, from the pilgrims on the Mayflower to the unconquered Seminole people to the frontier men and women who clawed out sod houses on the plains to men like Booker T. Washington who was born into slavery but went on to advise presidents and found a college. The American spirit was what spurred young men to raise the American flag over Iwo Jima, while at home, their wives and mothers and sisters and daughters worked in factories to build airplanes and munitions. It was the American spirit that refused to quit at the Alamo and that charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. And it was the American spirit, back in its infancy, that prompted the colonies to unite to overthrow an oppressive British government.

But the American spirit isn’t just part of our history. It’s who we are now. As it resurrected New Orleans from the grave after Hurricane Katrina, it similarly rebuilds cities and towns demolished by tornadoes or ravaged by floods. It unites communities in times of affliction and fuels individuals to succeed against the odds. From the entrepreneurs who built corporations from scratch to the bridges that span our mightiest rivers or the roads that cross the highest of mountain ranges to the urban renewal projects that revitalize neighborhoods and cities, the resoluteness is on display everywhere we look. Even Hollywood is infused by that spirit, as shown in movies like Rocky and Rudy or Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Pursuit of Happyness.

This American spirit, the essence of who we are, is profoundly exhibited by the men and women who have served and who serve in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and in our police and fire departments, our emergency response and rescue teams, and a myriad of law enforcement agencies. They don’t do it for the money. While they’re protecting us and our freedoms, they make less than picketing fast food workers demand for flipping burgers and slinging tacos. They don’t do it for the fame, as so many of them run from the limelight instead of seeking the attention they rightfully deserve. No, they do it to protect this great nation and the people who make it so. They do it knowing the risk, knowing the weight of responsibility they bear. They do it despite working long hours, missing family gatherings, and sometimes being gone for months or years at a time. Their loved ones bid them goodbye knowing they may come back scarred and wounded, changed forever, or may not come back at all. Like any segment of the population, our military and law enforcement ranks have their bad apples. They’ve made some mistakes, committed some wrongs. But by and large, they and their families are the finest, the bravest, the truest representation of the American spirit.

So what is it? Where does it come from? Is it unique to America? People in other countries have hard-working, never-give-up attitudes. People in other countries succeed against the odds, rise from the ashes, help and support each other in times of need. We’ve received the outpouring of their support for centuries. We’ve been inspired by their resolve. We’ve locked arms with other nations and they’ve locked arms with us in times of tragedy. These invincible characteristics aren’t purely American.

But there is something unique about the American soul, and I think it springs from the freedoms and rights we enjoy here, above and beyond those experienced anywhere else. The American spirit is often mischaracterized by people in other countries and misrepresented by Americans. It’s not a rebellion against all authority, nor a declaration of total independence from anyone or anything, although it does sometimes take on such attitudes. It isn’t meant to be a thumping of the chest, a “we’re better than you” mentality, although it sometimes comes off that way, and sometimes with good reason. Rather, at its core, I think it’s a celebration of freedom, a fervent refusal to surrender that freedom. Recognizing, as the founding fathers did, God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the indomitable American spirit is a staunch, determined, teeth-gritted quest to preserve and cling to those rights and that freedom through the strongest of storms and in the darkest of nights.

Perhaps the indomitable spirit of America was never on greater display than after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It was on United Flight 93 in the form of passengers who refused to let their deaths be part of another suicide mission, instead rising up against the hijackers and forcing the plane down in a Pennsylvania field. It was in Manhattan, where, while steel girders were collapsing and debris clouds were mushrooming and people were fleeing for their lives, NYPD and FDNY and first responders rushed toward the chaos to save lives and provide comfort. It was in ballparks and stadiums a few weeks later, when we refused to live in fear and made every effort to resume life as normal, and when Old Glory flapped majestically in the breeze, high and strong and free while we sang our national anthem and “God Bless America” with renewed vigor. It was active in people like Pat Tillman, who resigned from a lucrative NFL career to enlist in the Army Rangers to defend his country. It resonated from a bullhorn when President George W. Bush stood atop the rubble of the Twin Towers, arms around those conducting rescue efforts, and boldly declared, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people—and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” It was the motivating factor for building the new One World Trade Center (a.k.a. “Freedom Tower”) that stands 1776 feet tall, emblematic of the year our indomitable spirit was first declared. And it flew alongside Robert O’Neill as he and fellow Navy SEALs conducted the raid on a compound in Pakistan and put three bullets in the head of Osama bin Laden, extracting justice against the greatest enemy of America in a generation and bringing closure to many of 9/11’s victims. The indomitable spirit can be attacked, knocked down, dirtied, bloodied, tarnished, and tired, but it cannot and will not be extinguished.  

This indomitable American spirit that was on display when the pilgrims survived a two-month journey on the Mayflower and the first, brutal winter in the New World in order to establish a new, free colony; that was on display when the colonists took up arms to overthrow their British overlords; that was on display when the Union Army fought and died to preserve our young nation; that was on display when pioneers moved west and tamed the great American wilderness; that was on display as “The Greatest Generation” stormed the shores of Normandy and not only captured the beaches but also the farmlands and forests and cities on their way to liberating Europe; that is still on display in the woman who kisses her family goodbye before a graveyard tour through the ghetto or the man who kneels and hugs his wife’s womb before heading overseas to a hostile country to defend our freedom—it is this spirit that has made America great for these two and a half centuries, and it is what will continue to make America great for centuries more!

We have no choice, we people of the United States, as to whether or not we shall play a great part in the world. That has been determined to us by fate, by the march of events. We have to play that part. All that we can decide is whether we shall play it well or ill.” – President Theodore Roosevelt